Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Destination: A White Whale

Even those who have not made it all the way through Moby Dick (I currently have three people in my life who have never finished, all of whom will remain nameless, but one is my father, one is my boyfriend, and one is a coworker who shares my middle name), even if you've never done anything more than heft the book off the bookstore shelf for a moment before setting it back down and rubbing your strained muscles, you probably know that Moby Dick is a white whale whose evasive nature has made him the perfect metaphor for, well, anything.

In fact, perhaps the most prevalent meaning of Melville's white whale is the enigmatic nature of the beast itself. Lately though, Moby Dick has been anything but elusive. He's everywhere at Booksmith. Choose almost any section and you'll find him: from art books to pop-ups, fiction to destination literature, U.S. history to children's books, Melville is becoming a presence in bookstores difficult to ignore.

Why? In a recent article published in The Rumpus, Roary Douglas claims Moby Dick maintains its popularity for the fact that someone could write an essay for every page of the book. David Foster Wallace, apparently, wrote three essays on one chapter. Douglas's essay is about Moby Dick as travelogue, which is exactly what it is. I challenge anyone to read the first chapter (come on, just the first) without making a trip to the seashore, or booking a whale watching cruise, soon after.

Still struggling to find an essay in every page? How about a drawing? Matt Kish recently published an art book the heft of Moby Dick, in fact, it contains the same number of pages. In Moby Dick in Pictures Kish has created a work of art for each page in the novel. An impressive task. For example, how would you illustrate: For so revolvingly appalling was the white whale's aspect, and so planetarily swift the ever-contracting circles he made, that he seemed horizontally swooping upon them?

If you like the visual approach to so much text, there is a pop-up in our kids' section. Or you can try the Classic Starts version in children's books. This is part of a new series that strives to make classic literature palatable for beginning readers.

Skeptical that a narrative as intricate as Moby Dick could be translated into juvenile language, I took a look at how Classic Starts chose to "retell" the story. The book, thankfully, preserves the first line, and even the one that soon follows about Ishmael feeling so restless that he wanted to knock the hats off of people's heads: so far, so good. Plus, you only have to wait until chapter six (as opposed to twenty-eight) to finally meet the infamous Captain Ahab, and the entire book is only 141 pages. Any references to spermaceti, however, are excluded.

When I first read Moby Dick a little over a year ago, I read Phillip Hoare's The Whale simultaneously. The book just came out in paperback this year and is a wonderful supplement to those readers who get hooked on all the whale facts artfully woven into Melville's narrative. Hoare takes you from his experience swimming with whales to the Whaling Museum in New Bedford (where you can also find Melville sights such as the Seamen's Chapel, lined with memorials to men who lost their lives to whales and complete with a pulpit that looks like a ship's prow).

And if you are more interested in the life of the author, try Jay Parini's novelization of Melville's life, Passages of HM, released this month in paperback.

Still not convinced you want to pick it up? Start with Nathaniel Philbrick's new book Why Read Moby Dick, and if he doesn't convince you, I give up. Philbrick has written on this subject before—his In the Heart of the Sea tells the true story of the Essex, the whaling boat whose tragic tale inspired Melville to write his novel.

These books all orbit around the novel, much in the same way Melville describes a pod of whales circling their young. Even outside of the bookstore, I'm surrounded by references to the novel. My copyediting class was assigned a passage from Melville to proofread. And last week, a play of Moby Dick was even showing at the Paramount. I tried to go, but it was sold out. The white whale wins again.

2 comments:

Franquita said...

As a native of Nantucket Island, the famous island from whence the ill-fated Pequod sets sail, Moby-Dick was more or less shoved down my throat from an early age. I first read a juvenile version of it in Elementary school, had a unit on whaling in 7th grade History, and finally read the massive text in its entirety my sophomore year in high school. Some people have come to resent the white whale and the author who immortalized him. I, on the other hand, constantly see in the world around me how the epic novel remains relevant today.
I have perused the halls of the Nantucket Whaling Museum (voted one of the top 100 places to visit in the USA before you die) many times over the years, visited the New Bedford Museum (and stood at the pulpit of the Seaman's Bethel (not Chapel, FYI)--which, interestingly, is not the original structure, but made following the film's release. Although New Bedford and Nantucket have a special shared history connecting it to Melville, I believe anyone can relate to Moby-Dick and the characters Melville portrays--For example, I have seen a bit of Captain Ahab's monomania in our former President George W. Bush. Moby Dick in Pictures is a fantastic pictoral representation of the story, I highly recommend it.
We mustn't forget the importance of whaling itself in our history. About a decade ago, a young Sperm whale was found beached on the shores of Nantucket. Modern equipment was not suitable for taking care of a giant whale carcas, so the Nantucket Historical Association lended out the museum's collection of cutting-in tools (specialized implements for removing the blubber from a whale to be boiled into oil) to strip the carcass. The skeleton of the sperm whale now hangs in the Nantucket Whaling Museum.
I didn't really have a central theme to this comment, just wanted to elaborate basically on how awesome Moby-Dick really is, and how everyone should read it. I won't blame them for skipping the somewhat dry chapters explaining the characteristics of a Right whale's skull versus that of a spern whale; but if Nathaniel Philbrick can write an entire book on reasons to read Moby-Dick, I'm sure anyone can find at least one excuse to pick it up and read. Thanks, Booksmith, for featuring one of my favorite novels.

Franquita said...

As a native of Nantucket Island, the famous island from whence the ill-fated Pequod sets sail, Moby-Dick was more or less shoved down my throat from an early age. I first read a juvenile version of it in Elementary school, had a unit on whaling in 7th grade History, and finally read the massive text in its entirety my sophomore year in high school. Some people have come to resent the white whale and the author who immortalized him. I, on the other hand, constantly see in the world around me how the epic novel remains relevant today.

I have perused the halls of the Nantucket Whaling Museum (voted one of the top 100 places to visit in the USA before you die) many times over the years, visited the New Bedford Museum (and stood at the pulpit of the Seaman's Bethel (not Chapel, FYI)--which, interestingly, is not the original structure, but made following the film's release. Although New Bedford and Nantucket have a special shared history connecting it to Melville, I believe anyone can relate to Moby-Dick and the characters Melville portrays--For example, I have seen a bit of Captain Ahab's monomania in our former President George W. Bush. Moby Dick in Pictures is a fantastic pictoral representation of the story, I highly recommend it.

We mustn't forget the importance of whaling itself in our history. About a decade ago, a young Sperm whale was found beached on the shores of Nantucket. Modern equipment was not suitable for taking care of a giant whale carcas, so the Nantucket Historical Association lended out the museum's collection of cutting-in tools (specialized implements for removing the blubber from a whale to be boiled into oil) to strip the carcass. The skeleton of the sperm whale now hangs in the Nantucket Whaling Museum.

I didn't really have a central theme to this comment, just wanted to elaborate basically on how awesome Moby-Dick really is, and how everyone should read it. I won't blame them for skipping the somewhat dry chapters explaining the characteristics of a Right whale's skull versus that of a spern whale; but if Nathaniel Philbrick can write an entire book on reasons to read Moby-Dick, I'm sure anyone can find at least one excuse to pick it up and read. Thanks, Booksmith, for featuring one of my favorite novels.